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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a figure of speech in which what is said is the opposite to what is meant

yes turns to no on closer inspection with a magnifying glass

Rhetorical terms always prove popular here on HH, and this week we served up a particularly good one:

But as is often the case with terms like these, enantiosis isn’t quite as straightforward as it might appear.

As we defined it on Twitter, in its basic sense it refers to “a figure of speech in which what is said is the opposite to what is meant or implied.” So when it’s pouring down with rain outside and you joke, “well, this is nice!”, that’s enantiosis. When you book in your follow-up root canal surgery at the dentist, and with a cheery grin you say, “yep, can’t wait!”, that’s enantiosis. And when you look at the current political climate of the world and exclaim, “strong and stable!”, that’s probably enantiosis as well.

It’s a rhetorical form closely related to irony (surely a contender for the English language’s Most Misused Word), which in its loosest sense refers to any statement, situation or event in which what appears to have been said or to have occurred is actually vastly different from what’s actually happened. So enantiosis is essentially a more specific form of that, in which a direct opposite is presented.

In fact, etymologically, the name enantiosis derives from enantios, a Greek literally word meaning “opposite”. That’s the same root that turns up in words like enantiomorph, a proper name for a mirror image (a term originally used in crystallography), and enantiodromia, the process by which something changes into, or else alters to accommodate, its complete opposite.

But that’s not quite the end of the story here. Sometimes, when not referring to an implied opposite, enantiosis is also used to refer to the juxtaposition of contrary or competing ideas or descriptions within the same statement, often to create a paradox or else an overall rhetorical balance or rhythm.

What does that mean? Well, take the proverb, “money makes a great servant, but a cruel master.” In it, money is described simultaneously as two opposing things—a servant and a master. Unlike calling pouring rain “nice weather”, where what is implied is the opposite of what is said, here what’s being implied is obvious, but it’s being said in a way that draws together two opposites. Overall, you’re left with a neatly balanced, instantly memorable turn of phrase that relies on its contrariness—or rather enantiosis—for effect.

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